News for the World
COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW
News for the World
A proposal for a globalized era: an American World Service
I would be surprised if in future decades, people did not say that the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first was the period in which the shape of the modern world was determined, and that two primary forces did most of the shaping: the spread of capitalism and free market economies, and the invention of new technologies of communication.
We live as never before in an interdependent and integrated world economy. Nearly half of the revenues of the S&P 500 corporations are generated from business conducted outside the United States; developing countries provide roughly half of the manufactured goods bought by developed countries (up from 14 percent in 1987); approximately half of the US government’s debt is in foreign hands; and, on a more personal scale, a significant portion of everyone’s retirement fund is invested in foreign enterprises. The days have passed when America’s demand for energy in the world market was so large, relative to other nations, that it determined the price of oil we consume.
At the same time, the ability to communicate and to have access to information, knowledge, and opinion has taken a giant leap forward. Billions of people across the planet have some degree of access to the Internet. Global media outlets are proliferating, with newer entrants such as Al Jazeera, CCTV, and France 24 joining traditional international institutions such as the BBC and cnn. Meanwhile, the websites of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Reuters are garnering tens of millions of monthly visitors. When The Associated Press publishes an article it can reach several billion people.
The consequences of globalization are both good and bad. Certainly, the most notable benefit is lifting hundreds of millions of people out of lives destined for poverty and sickness, and diffusing basic wealth and well-being. This is, by any measure, a great good. We also have practical reasons for being happy about it as well: Our prospects for a full recovery from the Great Recession over the next five to ten years depend significantly on the creation of wealth in emerging economies, to make up for the decline in demand from the American consumer. And the positive facets of globalization are far more extensive than these economic benefits, affecting as they do our broader appreciation of the vast variety and intrinsic interest of the human condition. Without this appreciation, we are more susceptible to distorted ideas about what other people are like and more apt to remain dangerously uninformed about, for instance, what the Chinese are thinking, or what is driving young people in the Middle East and North Africa. Engaging the world remedies this ignorance.
We also know that globalization does not spread its consequences only benignly. We face a host of problematic and vexing issues, too, as a result of globalization. Many are notorious: the rise of violent extremism among populations threatened by modernity; the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change; the depletion of the earth’s natural resources; the degradation of the environment; the growing divide between rich and poor; and the list continues.
To realize the enormous positive potential of globalization—to channel it, regulate it, and encourage it in the right ways and to grapple with its manifold problems—will require many things. Among the most important is ensuring that the world has the institutions necessary to accomplish what we need. Institutions—political and civil—are central to the structure of any society, including an emerging global society.
Two such institutions are the university and the press. Both are concerned with providing objective and accurate information, ideas, and analyses that we need in order to understand and act in our world. The press is more concerned with grasping the here and now, the current state of things. We, in universities, generally are more concerned with taking our time and trying to see matters in a larger context. Obviously, there are differences, but the journalist and the scholar are more similar than not, and, importantly, are both motivated by a desire to serve the public good according to certain professional standards.
This comparison helps to highlight certain features of the press that are important and relevant to the new world. In the United States, the Supreme Court has played a major role in articulating the special role a free press can play, focusing primarily on political and social benefits. The press is part of the marketplace of ideas through which we seek to understand our world and find truth. It also serves the needs of citizens in exercising their sovereign responsibilities. It does this by exposing the misdeeds and errors of government, and by informing us more generally about the issues we must face and resolve. Collectively, the press is our national public forum.
Now, with globalization well underway, it is imperative that we begin to think more systematically about how we will build and develop the concept of a free press for a new global public forum.
This is part of a larger historical process. Authority and structures related to authority have to shift as human activity changes. This happened throughout the last century in many areas of the society. When the US economy went from a collection of mostly local and regional affairs to a national system, policymaking and regulation had to shift accordingly.
We can see the same process unfolding over the twentieth century with respect to the First Amendment and the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the press. As the issues faced by the nation became more and more national in reach, in part because of the growth of a national economy, and as the technologies of communication facilitated a national discussion, the power of local communities to set the balance between a free press and other societal interests (like reputation, privacy, offensiveness, and so on) became intolerable. Censorship anywhere effectively constituted censorship everywhere, since speakers in the new national forum would naturally be inhibited by local censorship. This was one of the great insights of the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which nationalized the rules with respect to defamation laws throughout the country.
As we move toward more global systems, a similar evolution needs to occur. We have the technological capacity for an effective global discussion led by a vibrant press, but two critical elements are missing: First, we do not have sufficient international consensus about the vital role of a free, independent, and professional global press. And, second, here in the US we do not really have the capacity for high-quality, professional journalism on a global scale.
On the first point: many nations, of course, actively fear an independent press and see journalism more as an instrument of governmental policy than as a source of objective information and analysis. In these countries there is debilitating censorship and restrictions on the media’s access to information. But the problems this creates for the free flow of information and ideas are no longer limited to speech in those nations. What happens in a system of global communication is the same thing that happens with local censorship in a national system—censorship anywhere chills speakers everywhere. A lot of what we will need to know about the world in the coming years will come through the efforts of “local” journalists. When “local” journalism is suppressed, therefore, our ability to hear and know is curtailed. In other words, censorship in, say, China, can be as significant, or even more significant to us than censorship in, say, California.
As we work to surmount this challenge, we need to remind ourselves that our own American route to a vibrant free press was not a straight line; our approach was neither consistent nor wholly admirable. We too sent people to jail merely for giving speeches or publishing commentary that the government claimed would undermine public order. We too tried to enjoin the press from publishing official secrets. We too denied the press access to newsworthy events and information.
What we ended up discarding is currently accepted in some parts of the world. China, in particular, appears to be struggling with a commitment to a more or less open economic system and a relatively closed communications system. Two contrasting interpretations of contemporary China have been emerging. One view surmises that the sophisticated leadership of China understands and accepts that the changes in Chinese citizens produced by the adoption of capitalism will inevitably result in greater demands for intellectual openness. It’s just a matter of time, according to this view. But another view from serious China observers is that the leadership believes quite the opposite—that they can have both sustained economic growth and a closely controlled society. They see these societal characteristics not as inconsistent or in tension but as complementary. Many are watching to see how this great debate between two competing visions of contemporary China will be resolved and which will ultimately prevail.
Persuading the Chinese that it is a mistake to choose a closed society may not be easy. Up to this point in our history, the dialogue about such matters has generally been about human rights. Clearly, the concept of human rights has been one of the great advances in human civilization. But one of the key aspects of globalization is that, because all of us are directly and adversely affected by the suppression of information in any one nation, we have additional reasons for objecting to censorship, beyond our noble concern for human rights.
Are we ready and able to make the case to the Chinese that they will be better off if they choose a path of openness and an independent press? Arguments about truth, democratic self-governance, and tolerance will be difficult to develop persuasively for China. But China believes in the national benefits of a free-market economic system. A more effective argument, then, may be that openness over time may be linked to sustained economic growth. The argument might go like this: Right now you are able to grow economically, at a rate never before witnessed in human history, because you have a natural base in manufacturing and exporting goods, which does not require a high level of societal creativity and innovation. At some point, however, you are going to lose that advantage and your success will then depend upon a culture and social character that thrives on independent thinking and creativity. There is, moreover, a direct link between the commitment to a vigorous free press (as well as free speech) and that kind of character. You would be wise to begin to cultivate that shift.
I have to admit that we have precious little study, analysis, and data to support such an argument, even though I believe it. It is a different tack from the one we have successfully employed in this country to develop our own commitment to a free press. We would be wise to expand our understanding of freedom of the press and its relation to all the things we value—including a vibrant economy—to make a stronger case for openness in the global debate.
Beyond control and censorship is another question: What do we need to do to make sure we’re getting the information and ideas—the quality as well as the amount—we need for dealing with this new global society? How do we build up our capacity to produce the journalism we need?
Before we get to that, some quick observations:
The first is somewhat obvious: there has been a significant and distressing contraction in the coverage of the world by the American press since the onset of the financial crisis that has overwhelmed the profession. Along with the inevitable shrinkage of newsrooms has come the elimination of foreign bureaus and foreign correspondents. Reporting of foreign news is, naturally, down as well. At the moment when we need a great expansion of such journalism, there’s a great contraction.
Second, a parallel development is the rise of national media in other nations designed to have a global presence. BBC World News and BBC World Service have been and are leaders here, but new entrants are coming into the arena— notable examples being Al Jazeera of Qatar, Xinhua News Agency and CCTV of China, and France 24.
Third, it is a reasonably debatable question whether the proliferation of expression that has arrived via the Internet will naturally provide the kind and quality of information we need in a globalized world. People often point to the rise of “citizen journalists” as an offset to the declining fortunes of the traditional press. I believe this is not an even exchange, that journalistic institutions matter, and, therefore we will need to do more than adopt a laissez-faire attitude about the fate of the press.
Fourth, while philanthropy and nonprofit models add a great deal to the journalistic mix, the sustainable institutions they create are unlikely to reach the scale that the world needs.
But neither will the free market. The press, as we have come to define its role in public life, is a public good, and public goods are never completely realized in a free-market environment. I have argued in the past that as the world becomes more interconnected and interdependent, we need a greater commitment of public funding for the press so that US newsgathering operations may successfully establish a broader global reach and footprint.
To those who believe that public funding is inconsistent with our free-press traditions, here are a few facts. First, our modern press is the result of a complex structure that has more components than just private ownership operating in an open and free market. Newspapers have, indeed, largely been under private ownership, though by the middle of the twentieth century, it was clear that features of the daily newspaper business were leading to monopoly status in virtually every city across the country. Most American cities have one daily, a situation that is part blessing and part curse. Even this largely unregulated market in daily newspapers produced a better product (in the sense of elevating their capacity to inform their readers and the public) for reasons beyond “business,” by not pocketing all of their monopolistic profits, but instead by investing in hiring specialized reporters to deepen their coverage. This began in the 1970s and continued until recently, when under major new technological and marketplace pressures and through the loss of its previous monopolistic protections, the press began shedding journalistic capacity.
Broadcasting, meanwhile, was designed (under the Radio Act of 1927 and then the Communications Act of 1934) to be comprised of private owners licensed by the government and regulated according to the “public interest, convenience, or necessity.” That system included regulations intended to expand the range of voices the “public” needed to hear, yet would not if the “licensees” solely followed their “business” interests. Hence the government devised policies to promote coverage of “local” news, “fairness” in the discussion of public issues, and “equal time” in the coverage of candidates for public office—all upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutional under the First Amendment.
Finally, there is another branch of the US media, the system of public broadcasting, surviving in part through direct public funding.
So while the market is a powerful system for a strong free press and must be the dominant model, there is no reason in experience to conclude that a free market alone will yield the press we need. My point is not that in order to sustain a high-quality institution of the press, you must rely on monopolies and public funding and regulation. It is rather that we need to be realistic about how we got to the point at which we created a high-quality press, and realize that it will not happen again with a free market operating alone. We should realistically consider what might be done to enhance the opportunities for the press to produce high-quality journalism in a global public forum.
To that end, I have a concrete suggestion. as noted above, other nations are using their state-sponsored and funded media to establish a broad global presence, and through that to advance their national agendas. We in the United States cannot take it for granted that global competitors like Al Jazeera, or China’s CCTV or Xinhua News, will just naturally evolve into the quality of journalism both the US and the world needs. To be sure, CNN provides one home-grown model of a successful American news broadcaster with global editorial reach. Along with a small handful of our national newspapers and wire services, it continues to have bureaus and correspondents abroad while our three major broadcast networks largely have withdrawn from the field. When there is major breaking news either in the US or abroad, CNN and CNN International have frequently excelled at providing live coverage. But we know that commercial pressures, as well as loss of domestic audience share to more explicitly ideological competitors on the right and left, have caused CNN’s international news coverage to become more reactive and less committed to sustained, in-depth reporting. While natural disasters or violent conflicts typically bring out the best in CNN’s reporting, American viewers and listeners must turn to our own public broadcasters, NPR and PBS, for day-to-day insight into important but more routine political and business news stories from around the world. The ironic fact is that, in addition to NPR’s own high-quality international coverage, these US public broadcasters are providing American audiences with the news reporting of the BBC and the BBC World Service, which comes to us largely courtesy of British taxpayers.
As it happens, we already have NPR and PBS partially government-funded, along with their affiliate stations across the nation, at around $400 million annually. Like the BBC, these are highly regarded journalistic enterprises. But while NPR engages in worldwide reporting, that reporting is not anything close to the scale of either what is needed and possible, or to what peer systems have to work with in other countries. NPR programming reaches 26.8 million listeners “across the nation and territories” per week. The BBC’s World Service alone reaches about 180 million listeners weekly. In any case, we have been well served during much of our history by having a mixed system of both commercial and publicly supported media in the US. They often have different strengths and weaknesses, provide healthy competition for one another and, taken together, result in a robust diversity of news sources. Thus, America would be well advised to plan for a stronger publicly funded system of international news broadcasting of its own.
Meanwhile, for reaching global audiences, the US has a series of government-sponsored broadcasting entities set up primarily during the Cold War to combat Communist propaganda by communicating the position of the United States. Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are the legendary institutions of this group, which also includes Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti (for Cuba), and Alhurra (for the Middle East); collectively, these entities receive nearly $750 million in government funding annually. Interestingly, because these were established as communications media of the United States government, and therefore were seen as having the potential to spread our own propaganda and potentially infect the American marketplace of ideas, the Congress forbade these media from re-broadcasting back into the US, under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Even in the era of the Internet, where these media agencies have active and readily available websites, this prohibition remains in place (and seems to me at this point constitutionally suspect).
The more interesting problem, though, is why the US would continue to maintain and fund this dual system of respected journalism in NPR and PBS, on the one hand, and the international propaganda media, on the other, when what we—and the world—need more than anything is truly global journalism capable of reporting the news in an independent, objective, and professional manner.
That is why I propose something new, an American World Service: a media institution with sufficient funding to bring the highest-quality American journalism to the global public forum.
It is, of course, absolutely necessary that editorial autonomy for such an entity be secured. It is worth re-emphasizing that both NPR and PBS have achieved a status of highly respected journalism (as has the BBC) while using state funding. Experience demonstrates that it is possible to maintain such autonomy and independence with state funding. It is also worth noting that every system of funding for the press, including the free market, carries risks of funders—whether the state, or foundations, or advertisers—trying to exert undue and inappropriate influence. We, therefore, cannot escape the problem of improper interference by abandoning the idea of public funding.
In the end, what we want is a better, modern-day version of what we’ve had: a vibrant mixed system—mostly free market, with some publicly supported institutions—to achieve our overarching goal of acquiring the information we must have in order to forge both an understanding of, and a consensus about, what kind of world we want to create.
While it is true that government spending on television and radio has been opposed in some quarters of Congress for as long as we have had public broadcasting in this country—and that the political climate of the moment is notably hostile to this effort—it also is clear that the importance of foreign newsgathering to civic discourse in the US will continue to grow. If those of us committed to open and robust public debate refrain from making the case for an American World Service until all the political stars are in alignment, this inaction will further delay the creation of a true global public forum.
Globalization is the great change of our era, wrought of economic forces forging connections throughout the world and of new technologies making human communication far easier. We need institutions designed to help us understand, tame, and channel these largely positive forces, and a free and independent global press is one such institution.
More than anything, we need a change in consciousness—to envision the problem we must solve as not only a matter of securing human rights for peoples but also securing the information and ideas we need to govern effectively in an increasingly integrated world. This is the ultimate stage of a progressive shift from the local to the national to the global. An American World Service will help us get there.